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Hong Kong will lift flight bans on nine countries and halve the quarantine period for arrivals from April 1, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Monday.

The relaxation of COVID-19 measures comes as the city faces an exodus of expatriates amid criticism over its strict quarantine and social distancing rules.

Speaking at a press conference, Lam said authorities will lift the ban on flights from nine countries — Australia, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, UK and US — from April 1.

She said the move is to address the socio-economic development needs of the city as well as the situation of Hongkongers stranded in these countries.

“If we continued with [this measure], this will be very troubling for many Hongkongers stranded in these nine countries. We understand this trouble and anxiety,” said Lam.

For the first phase, the new measure is for Hong Kong residents who have received two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.

Lam said that from April 1, all residents flying in from overseas will need to get a negative PCR test result no more than 48 hours before boarding and have a booking at a quarantine hotel for seven days.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, a resident flying in will need to get a negative test result at the airport.

During the quarantine at the hotel, he or she needs to do a rapid antigen test (RAT) every day, and PCR tests on the fifth and 12th day upon arrival.

If the PCR test result is negative on the fifth day, and the RAT negative on the sixth and seventh, the person can end the hotel quarantine after seven days — half the current period.

The person has to continue with RAT at home for the next seven days and go to a community testing center for PCR testing on the 12th day, but he or she is allowed to leave home.

If the person tests positive at any stage, he or she will need to enter a community isolation hotel.

But the chief executive said that other social distancing measures will continue to April 20 as announced previously.

Lam, however, revealed a roadmap to relaxing most measures in three phrases over three months from April 21, provided the coronavirus situation remained stable and is on a decreasing trend.

For the first phase, she said that venues such as gyms, beauty salons, sports facilities, museums, libraries and performing arts venues can reopen, while restaurants can offer dine-in services till 10pm.

The cap on social gathering in public and diners per table will be increased to four.

But members of the public will still need to wear a mask — besides in restaurants — use the LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app, and show their vaccine pass when entering these venues.

Bars, swimming pools and beaches can reopen in the second phase — Lam did not give an exact date — while those doing vigorous exercise can take off the mask.

Restaurants will be allowed to offer dine-in services till 12am, while the cap on social gathering and diners per table will be raised to eight.

Lam said there will be further relaxation in the types of premises allowed to reopen and the cap on social gathering numbers in the third phase.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong in the fifth wave rose from 53,943 on Feb. 22 to 1,035,059 on March 20.

The overall death tally jumped from 145 to 5,683 in the same time period.

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